Earlier this year, there were several cases of lynching in different parts of India, where a mob gathered and killed innocent people, based on some rumour spread through WhatsApp messages. While these horrific killings raise many uncomfortable questions about the Indian civil society and rule of law, one entity that was put in the docket almost immediately, both by the government and the populace, is the WhatsApp. The argument went that the WhatsApp enables viral spread of information which, in turn, leads to these horrific incidents. Subsequently, the WhatsApp had to make several changes to its messaging platform.
A few years earlier (in 2008), terror attacks in Mumbai raised many uncomfortable questions about the effectiveness of India’s intelligence and security apparatus. Interestingly, among the most forceful response to the attacks was the government’s attempt at coercing Blackberry (and possibly other telecom entities) into enabling governmental access to unencrypted phonecalls and messages (ultimately resulting in Blackberry relocating some of its servers to India). Then the argument went that end-to-end secure encryption supported by the erstwhile Blackberry platform prevented acquisition of the intelligence required to prevent the attacks.
More recently, there has been anxiety about foreign actors influencing Indian politics and election (furor about different political parties’ relationships with Cambridge Analytica). However, the visible focus is more on the role of social media platforms than the uncomfortable questions this raises about corruption in politics and campaign finance. Fake news is increasingly being discussed as a societal concern. However, it is largely being presented as an exclusively technological problem, and little attention is being paid to uncomfortable questions this raises about tribalism in the Indian society and people’s inability to ascertain truth beyond social media. Summons to technology companies such as Facebook were recently threatened in the context of data privacy issues, when deeper questions about the right tradeoff between governmental efficiency and an individual’s privacy are still unresolved. The many incidents of rape raise uncomfortable questions about the status of women and gender dynamics in India. However, there are elements blaming internet and cellphones as culprits. There are numerous other examples of the society and the political class blaming technology as an instigator, a roadblock, or an adversary.
What makes technology a frequent target? There are three key reasons. First, in India, with its socialist moorings and glaring inequality, industry has always been a politically convenient scapegoat. Any potential role of technology in a crisis or a tragedy allows the political class grandstanding opportunities. Second, technology industry is an easy target. It often does not have the pulpit or the bandwidth to argue its case. Nor does it have the inclination to protest strongly due to fear of repercussions in a highly regulatory environment. Third, such targeting allows shifting focus away from uncomfortable truths and questions about political decision making, intelligence, and society. Consider this. Mob lynching and riots have happened frequently in India before WhatsApp came. WhatsApp does not appear to trigger mob lynching in other countries. There was no end-to-end encryption during the deadliest terrorist attack on Mumbai. Countries with far greater internet and mobile penetration have far fewer reported rapes. CIA’s historical involvement in Indian elections appears to be far deeper than Cambridge Analytica. Fake news was always around (Amala and Kamala). Facebook did not leak or misuse Aadhaar data. Despite this, instead of holding mirror to itself, the society and the political class finds it more expedient to blame technology.
While scapegoating technology is unfair and dispiriting, it also leads to policies and legislations aimed at regulating online content and messaging, weakening encryption, and requiring backdoors that have high collateral costs, while being largely ineffective.
It is impossible for a government diktat to guarantee that all “objectionable” online content would be removed. The amount of content that is generated online is staggering and no amount of manual policing from the administration or the platform providers (e.g., Facebook) will ensure that there no such content online. Automatic filtering algorithms help, but such algorithms cannot be exclusively relied upon due to lower-than-needed accuracy. Multinational nature of the platforms popular in India makes it particularly difficult both for the government and the platform providers to enforce regulations. Furthermore, both content generators and consumers can always migrate to newer platforms when regulated — in this cat-and-mouse game, the government and the platform providers will always trail due to the ease of content creation and consumption compared to regulation and filtering. Attempts to weaken encryption and introduce backdoors are even more misguided. Terrorists can always use a different tool or a different channel for communication (as happens in Kashmir, when the internet is shut down).
In fact, the above policy and legislative approaches could be counterproductive. Weakening of encryption could make access to governmental programmes and services vulnerable to cyber attacks, especially as their reach and magnitude increase with increased digitisation and connectivity. It could make Indian electronic and software products uncompetitive globally if rest of the world has higher encryption standards. Few would trust doing business with India. It could adversely impact people’s trust in government, industry, and banking institutions since frauds and data thefts may become common. It could compromise security and intelligence since some information will invariably travel over weakened channels. It could also drive mischief-mongers and terrorists to migrate to other platforms that may be more difficult to monitor or regulate. Analogously, an institutionalised mechanism for regulating online content would be susceptible to misuse. Examples abound (recent concerns expressed by the Supreme Court about Social Media Hub, Shaheen Dhada case, blocking of Twitter handles of certain journalists and right-wing groups in 2012, etc.). Disproportionate and misplaced focus on technology also shifts attention and resources away from the fundamental problems at the root of these crises and tragedies, e.g., law and order, external relations, radicalisation, intelligence, status of women, campaign finance, political corruption, data privacy, etc.
Instead of setting up technology as a scapegoat, India will do well to partner with technology companies.
Technology industry is already making significant efforts at combating different forms of misinformation and extremism through identification, monitoring and removal of accounts and content that violate terms of service, redirection of users to anti-extremism and fact checking websites, and educating users about the value of caution and restraint when generating, consuming, or disseminating information online. Government should aid these efforts through funding, data sharing, and resource pooling; collaboration in public education and debunking misinformation could be particularly effective.
The government should also support technology industry’s effort in developing strong encryption standards and let the market determine the strength of encryption for different applications (India currently limits all home-grown products to a weak 40-bit encryption). It must also foster an encryption and cybersecurity eco-system within India, with special focus on security of public cyber-infrastructure. It must also allow private sector to bid for public cyber-infrastructure projects; healthy competition among different vendors will enhance the security of the infrastructure. The government must recognise its limitations in making technical judgements. Any decision that may negatively impact privacy or ability to generate or consume online content must be taken with extreme care and should largely follow US or European standards.
Technology has played a big role in the Indian growth story. India must ensure that it continues to be a pillar of India’s growth in future. Stopping its scapegoating will go a long way.
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Rakesh Kumar is an associate professor in the electrical and computer engineering department University of IllinoisUrbana-Champaign. His research is in computer systems energy efficiency and ...Read More +